Step by step Hashicorp Vault CA/PKI deployment

Step by step Hashicorp Vault CA/PKI deployment

I love to work with Hashicorp Vault in the cloud projects. It is a great solution for companies that do not want to lock themselves to Google or AWS cloud. It has strong features like dynamic passwords, secrets management, certificates, tokens, etc… Today I would delve into Hashicorp Certificate Authority project I recently built. I built 2 tier CA hierarchy project with the offline root Certificate Authority server, that is considered a classical by-the-book solution.

Some theoretical information

Certificate Authority is in charge to generate and revoke service/user/application certificates. It is a part of PKI – Public Key Infrastructure infrastructure. For example, when you surf the Internet and the website address starts with https, it means the website has an SSL certificate installed and all communication is encrypted. This SSL certificate is generated by Certificate Authority.

Another popular use-case is if you are building a company cloud. One of the methods to raise the overall security level is to make sure that all the traffic is encrypted between all servers involved. You can purchase SSL certificates for all your application servers or add CACertificate Authority server in your infrastructure and use it to generate certificates for your application servers.

How does certificate signing work?

The certificate signing works as following:

  1. Alice generates a Certificate Signing Request (CSR) and sends it to the CA server.
  2. CA server validates the request and signs it with its the private key and sends back to the user.
  3. Alice can now install the SSL certificate for example in Nginx for her website.

How validation is made?

  1. Bob opens the website in the browser.
  2. The browser receives the encrypted page.
  3. Browser extracts website public key from the page.
  4. Browser checks that certificate is signed by known CA authority.
  5. If yes, continue opening the pages, otherwise warning to the user.

Certificate Authority Hierarchy

Certificate Authority is another server in your infrastructure. In theory, it can be hacked. It is a real threat. To minimize the affected of the hacked CA server, another higher-level CA server is used. This higher-level CA server is called a root CA and it is recommended to keep offline. The online CA server is hacked, you rebuild it and generate a new certificate for it using the offline CA server you have.

Step by step Hashicorp Vault CA/PKI deployment

In some case, when even higher security is needed you can implement another layer and build 3 tier CA deployment solution. Here is an excellent article about that.

Setup Root CA

I use cfssl application to generate a root certificate out of the template.

Create certificate root template ./root-template.json

"CN": "Company Root CA",
"key": {
"algo": "rsa",
"size": 2048
"names": [{
"C": "IL",
"L": "Tel-Aviv",
"O": "Company",
"OU": "Cloud",
"ST": "Hamerkaz"

Next, I use the following command:

mkdir -p /tmp/certs/
cfssl genkey -initca ./root-template.json | cfssljson -bare /tmp/certs/root-cert

All certificates are saved into /tmp/certs/root-cert directory. 3 files will be created:

  1. /tmp/certs/root-cert.pem – public certificate – used in the certificate chain.
  2. /tmp/certs/root-cert.csr – certificate signing request
  3. /tmp/certs/root-cert-key.pem – certificate private key – to be saved offline

Configure Hashicorp Vault CA

I suppose you have already Hashicorp Vault server already installed in your cloud. I will configure it to be certificate Issuing CA.

The next script will do the following:

  1. Enable PKI service
  2. Configure Certificate Authority.
  3. Generate Certificate Signing Request from the CA server itself and export it to a file: /tmp/issuing-ca.csr

# enable pki service in vault under /pki
curl --silent --header "X-Vault-Token: "$VAULT_TOKEN \
--request POST --data '{"type":"pki"}' \
# configure
curl --silent --header "X-Vault-Token: "$VAULT_TOKEN \
--request POST --data '{"max_lease_ttl":"87600h"}' \
$VAULT_ADDR/v1/sys/mounts/pki/tune || true
curl --silent --header "X-Vault-Token: "$VAULT_TOKEN \
--request POST --data '{"common_name":"'$VAULT_DOMAIN'","ttl":"26280h"}' \
$VAULT_ADDR/v1/pki/intermediate/generate/internal \
| jq -r '.data.csr' > /tmp/issuing-ca.csr
curl --silent --header "X-Vault-Token: "$VAULT_TOKEN \
--request POST --data '{"issuing_certificates":"http://'$VAULT_DOMAIN':8200/v1/pki/ca","crl_distribution_points":"http://'$VAULT_DOMAIN':8200/v1/pki/crl"}' \
$VAULT_ADDR/v1/pki/config/urls || true

Now you need to sign on the Issuing CA certificate request /tmp/issuing-ca.csr with the root CA server private key. After that, you can take the root CA private key offline.

Prepare a signing configuration file ./signing-config.json :

    "signing": {
        "default": {
            "expiry": "43800h",
            "usages": ["signing", "key encipherment", "cert sign", "crl sign"],
            "ca_constraint": {"is_ca": true}

Run the following commands to sign CSR:

# sign certificate with root certificate
cfssl sign -ca /tmp/certs/root-cert.pem \
-ca-key /tmp/certs/root-cert-key.pem \
-hostname $VAULT_DOMAIN -config ./signing-config.json \
/tmp/issuing-ca.csr | sed -E 's/cert/certificate/' \
> /tmp/issuing.pem
# upload signed to Vault
curl --silent --header "X-Vault-Token: "$VAULT_TOKEN \
--request POST --data @/tmp/issuing.pem \

Vault CA now is configured to be issuing CA in the CA hierarchy.

Next, you need to create a role to be able to generate certificates for your domain:


curl --silent --header "X-Vault-Token: "$VAULT_TOKEN \
--request POST --data '{"allowed_domains":"'$VAULT_ALLOWED_DOMAIN'","allow_subdomains":true,"max_ttl":"720h"}' \
$VAULT_ADDR/v1/pki/roles/generate-cert-role || true

An optional step is to create a custom policy and account to use only to generate certificates.

Finally, generating a certificate.


curl --silent --header "X-Vault-Token: "$VAULT_TOKEN \
--request POST --data '{"common_name":"'$DOMAIN_NAME'"}' \

Generate certificate, will generate:

  • private key
  • public key
  • certificate chain / ca_chain comprising of the public key of issuing CA. By default, it will include only 1 certificate same as issuing_ca. When uploading certificate data to the application, you will need to add certificate – a public key of root CA server to the certificate chain, so the applications will trust the certificate.

Here is an example of JSON you will get:

   "request_id": "3bb27407-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-873e259cf257",
   "lease_id": "",
   "renewable": false,
   "lease_duration": 0,
   "data": {
     "ca_chain": [
     "certificate": "-----BEGIN CERTIFICATE-----\nYY\n-----END CERTIFICATE-----",
     "expiration": 1568655291,
     "issuing_ca": "-----BEGIN CERTIFICATE-----\nXXXX\n-----END CERTIFICATE-----",
     "private_key": "-----BEGIN RSA PRIVATE KEY-----\nP\n-----END RSA PRIVATE KEY-----",
     "private_key_type": "rsa",
     "serial_number": "67:fb:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx"
   "wrap_info": null,
   "warnings": null,
   "auth": null

Now you need to extract private_key, ca_chain (and add public cert of root certificate to it) and, certificate.

Hope this solution helps you. leave your comments.


About the author

Yuli Stremovsky
Yuli StremovskyParanoid Security Guy
For the past 15 years I’ve been leading the evolution of startups and enterprises to achieve the highest level of security and compliance. Throughout my career I’ve been a Cyber Security expert and advanced solutions architect with many years of hands on experience both on offensive and defensive side. Knowledgeable at the highest level in application development, networking, data and databases, web applications, large scale Software as a Service solutions, cloud security and blockchain technologies.

I’ve been working with CISO’s of international enterprises, helping them set Information Security strategy, and overseeing the implementation of these recommendations. As part of these projects, I’ve been assisting companies to achieve compliance in GDPR, PCI, HIPAA and SOX.

Among my credits, I was a founder of a database security company GreenSQL/Hexatier which was acquired by Huawei and I’ve co-founded, Secure multi-signature Crypto wallet.

Specialties: Software and cloud architecture, Compliance (GDPR, HIPAA, PCI, SOX), blockchain technologies, software development, secure architectures, project management and low level research.